Karen Brennan’s short story “Floating” is from a collection of short stories entitled “Wild Desire” (1991), which collectively could be defined as stories about independently-minded women, including the main character in “Floating” who escapes from her tedious, ordinary, but unhappy everyday existence into a world of fantasy. This story is narrated by a woman who we find has had a miscarriage, which has so deeply affected her mental state that she fantasizes, not only about still having the baby she has lost, but believing she is able to levitate, thus symbolically escaping from the constraints of her currently unhappy reality. By using the first person throughout the story, but by using no names for the characters within it, Brennan makes the story read like a personal account, yet being anonymous it can be related to by anyone with similar feelings of depression, pain and even guilt. In a way the story is a metaphor for any real-life situation where a deeply saddening loss or other event has occurred, and where it is then only too easy to lapse into a depressive state.
The story opens when she awakes, imagining that she is levitating, then “hearing” the sound of a baby crying at the back of the house. In her fantasy she brings it in and changes its clothes. Commenting that it was still alive after two days of crying, she is probably alluding to the miscarriage having occurred two days previously. Noticing that she is wearing new black boots that her husband told her reminds her of a nun, she attracts her husband’s attention to her new found power but he does not seem amazed or surprised. It even seems that he does not notice as all. The perception is that she has a loving husband, as indicated by her comment: “I married a nice responsible man who loved me” (p. 303), which comes through her fantasy, yet by noting that he is apparently not aware of her new levitational abilities, she is accepting on some subconscious level that it is not part of the real world which includes her husband.
After “waking”, she moves around her house, floating past her coffee table which she describes as a “gracious, but unpretentious arrangement” (p. 303). She continues to float past different objects in her home, including a world map, her grandmother’s mirror, (which she says has an “uncharacteristically glamorous reflection of herself” (p. 303) in it). The reader can interpret these as symbolic examples of links with the reality from which she is escaping.
At this point she feels alone and unable to join the real world. Even after she says that her husband calls for her to come down, she is unable to and ponders if her husband is aware of the baby floating with her. She believes that her husband finds her floating is no longer amusing, thought referring to it as a miracle, along with the baby that she imagines she is keeping in a drawer lined with dark blue velvet, located in a back storage room where old papers and photographs are kept. There is also a broken window covered with a sheet, making the room cold and dark and blocking the view of life outside.
She continues her fantasy existence by floating around her house and above her husband who is busy making spaghetti. He seems to not notice her at all, and is never impressed no matter what she does. Even when she calls out “Look what I can do!” (p.302), “It didn’t amaze him.” (p. 302). There is a strong suggestion here of self-denial of her fantasy; she believes that she is communicating with her husband and that he is ignoring her.
Overall, Brennan’s “Floating” offers a window into an imagined world of a depressed and anguished wife, who seems almost entirely detached from reality, yet maintaining a fleeting presence there. She’s also an “almost” mother whose every word and thought originates from the subconscious lament of the loss of her unborn baby. The story occasionally touches on the husband’s reaction to what must be the very odd behavior of his wife, although there is really no strong clue to his view of the situation as the entire story is told only from the wife’s perspective.
Despite her perceived state of levitation, she is clearly desperate to make actual contact with him. She says, “A long piece of spaghetti dangling from my mouth to tantalize him. Spaghetti kiss? I say. Because I want us to be friends, to be affectionate to one another.” (p. 304)
When she says she is married to a responsible husband, she seems to have said it less to inform anyone else but more to convince herself. The agony of the wife subdued beneath her delusive state is apparent in the following words: “But now I could use some help,” she says. (p. 303). However, his lowered glance can be viewed as the husband’s helpless submission to the bizarre situation in their relationship.
What is perhaps most disturbing about the story is that strange happenings are described with a surprising casualness. She describes her baby as “This is a secret baby: the baby of my afterhours.” (p. 303). Although that is not a normal baby description, no further explanation is granted. It is perhaps her alluding to the baby being unknown to anyone in normal life.
Flying is an idea strongly connected to a sense of freedom. Physically, this is the highest form of freedom. She projects the imagination of flying or levitation because her heart craves for absolute freedom from the situation in her married life and of the present loss of the baby, yet her flying seems to confine her within the walls of her home. The author’s intention may be to relate that instead of freedom, the narrator is experiencing only detachment from the real world.
Out of all types of disorders or compulsions, like taking recurrent showers, constantly washing hands, secluding oneself from everything and everyone, this particular imagination of flying is very appropriately used here; it simultaneously represents the free spirit, the craving for freedom, a possible wish to be free of her normal life and the suppressed guilt of the wife.
The description of the child being alive represents the angst of its mother. The feeling of her pain of loss comes across very clearly in Brennan’s story. Notably, by not using names, the story becomes identifiable to many readers. However, the personal manifestation of angst through levitation may obstruct mass identification with the character, since that image is perhaps too personal to appeal to the majority of readers.
Setting the scene at the very outset, achieves a considerable impact. As we have seen in the paragraph of the description of the back room where notebooks and old photographs are kept, the graphical devices like the covered broken window and consequent darkness and cold, mother’s old blue velvet, etc. create a vivid picture to evoke the sense of atmosphere and tone in the very first paragraph.
The account of the market place lady’s face to face chat with Satan (p.304) is an apparent plot- parallel, but how far it is an appropriate parallel is questionable. If the entire main plot is considered, the wife is relating a lot about her life out of sentiment, whereas the other lady was forced to tell her life story to Satan. There remains a difference in the levels of intention. Satan is found very attractive by the lady who indeed parallels on the implicit level of intention of living, after all, by the wife. However, in terms of parallel, Satan definitely does not match the husband as a character. The husband seems merely a vague character in her story.
Overall, “Floating” provides a strong depiction of a woman detached from her real life. The author has taken the image of levitation and turned it into the driving device of the entire thematic plot. We may dream of flying above all our crises. Devices like the blue velvet in place of creamy satin, floating upside down above the dinner table, the beauty of the baby’s soft breathing, the old photographs juxtaposed with the baby in the storeroom, the almost whispered song of the mother in the child’s ears, the husband’s suggested anger or irritation, all serve wonderfully in both graphical and thematic terms in the plot. However, there still seems to be room for improvement to make the story more graceful and identifiable for the majority of readers.
Brennan, Karen. “Floating.” Writing as Revision. Ed. Beth Alvarado and Barbara Cully. Boston: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2011, 2010. 302-304. Print.